DENVER (Legal Newsline) – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has denied a trucking company's request to overturn a decision that said it retaliated against a former employee who left a trailer on the side of the road.
The case involved TransAm Trucking Inc. and plaintiff Alphonse Maddin, along with the administrative review board of the U.S. Department of Labor. TransAm had asked that the board review its petition claiming that retaliation didn’t occur.
Maddin was a driver for TransAm when sub-freezing weather conditions caused his brake lines to freeze. He parked his immobile truck alongside the interstate and waited for a service truck. When the heat in his truck stopped working, he detached the trailer from his truck and drove away. He was terminated from TransAm following the incident.
Maddin filed a whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), arguing that TransAm violated the surface transportation assistance act (STAA) by terminating his employment because of the incident. OSHA dismissed the complaint, and Maddin went on to call for a hearing before a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge.
The ALJ reasoned that Maddin was protected because he reported the incident to TransAm and wouldn't operate the tractor with an inoperable trailer attached. TransAm argued that the driver abandoned company property, which was the reason for his discharge.
The ALJ ruled that because Maddin refused to operate the vehicle, which posed a safety concern, TransAm used this as its bias for firing him.
TransAm appealed the decision to the U.S. Department of Labor’s administrative review board and then also to the Tenth Circuit, where they were both denied. Maddin received back pay and was reinstated as a result of the claim.
“TransAm Trucking was found liable in August for reinstatement with back pay, for a trucker the company fired in 2009,” Adam R. Young, associate at Seyfarth Shaw, told Legal Newsline. “The amount of back pay depends on what work, if any, the worker was performing during the interim - he can only receive damages for the difference in wages.
"If an average trucker makes about $40,000 per year, and the plaintiff was unable to get another job, he may be owed $280,000, plus salary and benefits going forward.”
A ruling such as this one may be considered a warning to employers that the U.S. Department of Labor has a broad stance on what it considers whistleblower claims under OSHA.
“This decision is surprising, because the driver’s actions probably were not protected under the STAA, which only creates a whistleblower claim for an employee who 'refuses to operate a vehicle because the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public because of the vehicle’s hazardous safety or security condition,'” Young said.
“Because the trailer was inoperable and the driver drove off without it, the driver could not have refused to 'operate' in unsafe conditions, but, rather he abandoned company property. Clearly, the agency thought this driver was terminated unfairly, and expanded its interpretation of the statute to allow him to pursue a claim.”